As the clock strikes 6 p.m. and students rush past the door, the Backstreet Boys' "As Long as You Love Me" blares from inside the room. A dozen dancers, visibly anxious, clasp their partners' hands and take off in different directions.
Two evenings a week, the Longhorn Country Dance Club meets at the University of Texas at Austin campus to practice the fine art of polka, the Colombian folk dance cumbia, the minuet and five other "country" dances. Tonight, it's the Texas two-step and West Coast swing.
For many in the class -- student, faculty and staff alike -- this is their first time on a dance floor.
'All Levels Here'
"We have all levels here," says Vinh Pham, a tall, energetic graduate student who created the club last spring with his fiancee. "There are a lot of beginners, but intermediate and expert dancers as well."
Pham, a professional dancer, was a member of Texas Ballroom, another campus dance organization, before he decided to pursue country specifically.
"I just really enjoy the social aspect of dance, and I felt like I was somehow missing it there," he says, shaking his jet-black hair with a hand. "But here, everyone knows everyone and we make quick friends because we're such a small, tight group."
Steve Friesen, a classics professor at the university, is here with his wife, Janice. "This is my first class and honestly, I'm not really sure what the heck I'm doing," he admits, straightening his shoulders and trying hard to appear relaxed.
But his eyes, darting from corner to corner in search of Janice, give him away. "I figured a country dance class is part of my becoming a Texan," says Friesen, a California native.
Lesson in Being Texan
If the class is a lesson in being Texan, it's not immediately clear from the Converse sneakers or the Aerosmith and Switchfoot concert tees the dancers are wearing.
At the front of the room, Jansport backpacks and purses of all colors are haphazardly strewn across the blue-gray risers, the occasional hi-topped sneaker cozying up beside them.
The class is divided into men and women, who line up on either side of the enormous room, their reflections clearly visible in the shiny hardwood floor. The guys move with clunky footwork toward the center of the room, taking their detailed instructions from Pham, who is standing before them, clapping his hands together sharply with each beat.
"Side, together, side, back, side, together, side, forward …" his voice echoes throughout the room.
Over on the left, the women are being coached by Jennifer Strunk, president of the club. "Come on girls, let's do it again," she says, smiling and focusing on Janice's uncertain footsteps.
One More Time
"Can we do it just one more time?" Janice asks her instructor, hands behind her back like a little girl.
"Of course," Strunk replies patiently, as she assumes the first position of their two-step.
Minutes later, the dancers are partnered and move counterclockwise in a large circle. Twirling, Patrick Thomas and his girlfriend, Micaela Casas, move together, as if they've been doing this forever.
"This is my first semester here," Thomas says, his face gleaming with sweat. "That makes this my third or fourth class, but I just want to dance well and … impressively," he says, motioning toward Micaela, one of the club's officers, with his hand. She smiles.
"OK, everyone together now, one, two, three, four …" Pham says, starting up Eric Clapton's "Layla" from his black laptop.
"Everyone and anyone can be a great dancer," he says. "If, after eight months of dancing, you're not a good dancer — not just decent, but good — you're getting gypped," he says, adding that members of his club have earned various prizes and accolades this past year, including national titles.
Pham placed third at a national dance competition last year, he's not shy about admitting, before revealing that his students "teach [him] new and different techniques every day."
"For example, Patrick hasn't let his disadvantage affect his dancing," Pham says, referring to Thomas, who has only one arm and two fingers. "When we were dancing today, he really made me think about different approaches to the two-step, a dance I usually don't even think about, I do it so often."
Back on the dance floor, Pham and Strunk use themselves as examples for the West Coast swing, carefully maneuvering around each other, her small hands firmly in his. Pham twirls her around with such ease, the others watching are visibly intimidated.
"I don't think I'm doing this right," Selim Sakaoglu, a first-time dancer, confesses. "Which arm is supposed to be around you? The left?" he whispers softly to his partner, hoping Pham and Strunk don't hear him.
"Let's not twist any arms here," Pham quickly tells the class, as he turns toward the group. "This isn't martial arts. We don't want anyone tearing muscle or dislocating a shoulder," he says, demonstrating how easy it is to do just that as he spins Strunk around and lodges her arm high behind her shoulder.
"Country is a social dance," he says enthusiastically. "It's not like karate. You don't want to go up to a girl and say, 'Hey, you want to spar?'"
At the insistence of the instructors, the dancers reluctantly trade partners. "The best way to practice is to dance with different people!" Pham shouts as "Mustang Sally" issues from the speakers mounted high on the wall.
"Hey baby," Pham says to his first-time partner, Heather Squires, laughing. "Just kidding, let's dance!" He turns Squires just as Wilson Pickett croons, "You been runnin' all over town now."
This is only Squires' second class, but she's already beginning to look like an old pro. "I'd like to compete, but for now, I'm just learning," she says, before neatly shuffle-ball-changing her way to her partner.
As the song winds down and the clock strikes 8, the seven remaining dancers are tired and sweaty but eager to return next week to learn the polka with their new partners.
"I hope you all come by Monday night, because you'll have so much fun," Pham says with a wide grin. "With the polka, that's when we can really just let it all out and go crazy."